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Food and Energy

Food is the second most important way in which energy is taken into the body. It’s the energy in food that sustains us, and the effect of food energy on our body is the basis for the dietary practice known as macrobiotics.

Energy exists on a continuum, from yin, among whose attributes are cold, darkness, and contraction, to yang, characterized by heat, light, and expansion. Foods exist on this continuum and can be characterized as predominantly yin or yang, according to the effect they have on the body.

Yin foods — primarily sweeteners, oil, liquids, and most dairy products — have a cooling and lethargizing effect on us. (This occurs regardless of their temperature. The effect is compounded when they’re chilled.)

Overconsumption of these foods disperses internal energy and is a primary cause of the weakness and degenerative diseases now prevalent. Caffeine, alcohol, and many drugs are also in this category. Although some of the latter substances (and many sweeteners) produce an initial burst of energy, their effect quickly abates and is followed by a letdown. Because their overall effect is lethargizing and cooling, they’re classified as yin.

Yang foods — primarily meat, salt, eggs, and hard cheeses — have a heating and animating effect on the body; overconsumption results in tension and rigidity.

Regular consumption of either category — now considered normal in the West — leads to imbalances in the body’s energy that ultimately become manifest as physical problems. There are yin diseases and yang diseases, characterized by an excess of one or the other, and diseases resulting from both. It’s therefore advisable to subsist more toward the center of the food-energy spectrum. 

As Daniel Reid says in Chinese Herbal Medicine, "Food, above all, is the constant cure and forms the foundation of Chinese preventive medicine. ... Chinese physicians try to follow Sun Simiao's ancient dictum: first try food; resort to medication only when food fails to effect a cure." (p. 60)

A diet based on this principle — the principle of balance — is grain-centered rather than meat-centered and includes vegetables, beans and bean products, soups and condiments, and in some cases fish and desserts. Foods that are packaged, processed, or chemically treated are avoided, as are most animal products.

Methods of preparation affect the energy in foods and are also important — ingredients and preparation are suited to the season and locale, with an emphasis on variety. The five elements are also taken into consideration, as manifested in the five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and pungent (see the "Chinese Clock" tables). 

Macrobiotic practice also avoids the use of electricity in cooking. As Michio Kushi points out in The Macrobiotic Path to Total Health, "The intense vibration [of microwave ovens] can affect the cellular integrity of the food as well as be absorbed by those who eat it. ... Medical studies show that microwaved food produces major changes in blood and immune function. ... From an energetic view, these are predominantly extreme yin, dispersing effects, contributing to the damage, deterioration, and decomposition of body cells. Electric cooking is not as chaotic as microwave cooking, but it can also lead to erratic digestive, circulatory, and nervous functions and produce an overall weakening effect, including loss of mental focus and concentration." (p. 39)

The point about macrobiotics as it relates to chi kung, however, is that despite its excellence, it can at best only remove self-imposed obstacles to health — halting the dissipation of our energy by wrong food choices, allowing our own healing processes to function optimally and unencumbered.

The importance of this achievement should not be underestimated. But if our energy is low to begin with and has been further depleted by disease or injury, merely halting its dissipation may not be enough. We must actively consolidate and rebuild and expand it for healing of deep or chronic problems to take place, and chi kung can do this. Macrobiotics is, in a sense, the yin or passive aspect of energy practice, while chi kung is the yang or active aspect. We can do either separately, but for the most rapid progress, both are essential.

For an excellent general discussion of macrobiotics as related in a doctor’s personal experience of healing, see Recalled by Life, by Anthony Sattilaro, M.D. 

Michio Kushi, one of the foremost exponents of macrobiotics, and his wife, Aveline, have written (individually, together, and with others) many books on the subject, covering various health problems, aspects of Eastern diagnosis, and cooking techniques. 

See especially The Macrobiotic Path to Total Health, "a complete guide to preventing and relieving more than 200 chronic conditions and disorders naturally." For each category of illness, the authors (Michio Kushi and Alex Jack) outline the conventional medical treatment, provide references to medical studies (for those who feel the need for this sort of thing), and then discuss the macrobiotic approach.

Michio Kushi's The Book of Macrobiotics and Your Face Never Lies are also outstanding, as are The Cancer Prevention Diet and Diet for a Healthy Heart. The Kushi Institute, in western Massachusetts, offers workshops and events and sells macrobiotic products and utensils by mail order: www.kushiinstitute.org.

Among cookbooks, Aveline Kushi's Introducing Macrobiotic Cooking is a standard, as is Kristina Turner's warm, user-friendly, best-selling volume, The Self-Healing Cookbook.